Review promised of cutoff of disability benefits Apfel, nominated to head Social Security, would study aid to children

September 14, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's nominee to head the Social Security Administration promises a "top-to-bottom review" to find out whether the government has improperly cut off disability benefits for tens of thousands of children in low-income families.

The nominee, Kenneth S. Apfel, made the pledge last week at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. Apfel said that if the Senate confirmed his nomination to be social security commissioner, he would complete the review in 30 days and then decide what "remedial actions," if any, might be needed.

The government has decided to cut off cash benefits for more than 121,000 children because their disabilities are not deemed severe enough to meet the strict new standards established by the 1996 welfare law. Those children represent 59 percent of all the children examined under the law's new criteria.

Apfel is an associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, responsible for spending on Social Security, welfare and education.

Until now, Social Security officials have defended their handling of the disability program. They have insisted that they are carrying out the intent of Congress and that there is no evidence of pervasive problems or widespread errors in the decisions.

But Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said that many children with severe disabilities were losing benefits.

He described two such cases. One involves an 8-year-old North Carolina boy who has an IQ of 45, uses a wheelchair and cannot speak. In the other case, a 13-year-old Brooklyn girl has repeatedly tried to kill herself, often hears voices, speaks incoherently and has recently been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for more than a week.

In those cases, Apfel said, benefits should not have been cut off. "When you review 200,000 cases over a relatively short period of time," he said, "there will be mistakes."

In his current job, Apfel worked on regulations for the children's disability program that have been harshly criticized by parents and mental health groups.

Conrad said that there were immense and inexplicable variations in the results of the new regulations. Children are losing benefits in more than 78 percent of all cases reviewed in Mississippi, Texas and Montana. But the comparable figures are less than 40 percent in Nevada, Hawaii, Minnesota and California. The data suggest that "something is radically wrong," Conrad said.

Apfel said that, if confirmed, he would lead a wide-ranging national debate over how to change the retirement program to meet the needs of baby boomers.

The 76 million members of the baby-boom generation will become eligible for Social Security in the two decades after 2008. Federal officials say that by 2012, if Congress makes no changes, Social Security will have to pay out more in retirement, disability and survivor benefits than it will collect in taxes. By 2029, they say, the Social Security trust fund will be depleted, and revenues will cover only three-fourths of the cost of benefits.

Members of Congress from both parties have expressed interest in proposals to bolster the program by investing some payroll tax revenues in the stock market. Under current law, Social Security taxes not needed for today's benefits are invested exclusively in government securities, which are extremely safe but have historically had a lower rate of return than stocks.

Apfel said that White House officials had just begun to think about long-term changes in the structure of Social Security.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, encouraged Apfel to be bold and candid. "It is not malfeasance for you to be bringing us bad news," Kerrey told the nominee. "That's your responsibility."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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